What I Would Ask Bill Clinton
(Guest Post by Big Tent Democrat)
Since, unlike Jeralyn, I am not a blog leader ("Pres. Bill Clinton sat down with leaders of the lefty blogging community in his Harlem offices 9/12 and TalkLeft 's Jeralyn Merritt noted those in attendance . . . [not me] . . .") I don't get to ask President Bill Clinton questions. And to add insult to injury, Jeralyn has already thrown me overboard, offering my guest blogging gig to Clinton (yes I am sulking over here). All that said, I asked myself what I would have liked to discuss with Clinton. I thought of this issue most of all - 'does Clinton think his Third Way/New Democrat approach, that worked so well for him (did it work for the Dem Party?) in the 90s (of course since he is the best politician of his generation it is not clear that using of other approaches would not have worked for him) is the right political approach in today's hyperpartisan age of Bush Republicanism?'.
Anyone who has read my posts here knows by now I tremendously admire the work of the late Richard Hofstadter (an admiration shared by The Mahablog) and believe that our current Democrat political rock star - the new Bill Clinton - Barack Obama (a tremendously talented politician in his own right) has much to learn from him, as well as FDR. I think blurring the differences between the parties is bad politics, and that we Democrats must highlight the differences between Democrat amd Republican. I wonder what Clinton thinks and on the flip are some of the thoughts I would present for his consideration.
Bill Clinton has a number of "nicknames" in the blogs. My favorite is The Big Dog. I don't know where it comes from or what it means, but I like it. But the nickname relevant to this post is Elvis. Remember the SNL skit with the "Vegas group" "Elvii" - the 3 Stages of Elvis? Ok, you have to be a little older to remember it, but think about Young Revolutionary Gyrating Hips Elvis, then Hollywood Elvis and then Vegas (to put it more bluntly Fat) Elvis. just like there were different incarnations of Elvis, there also were different incarnations of Bill Clinton.
Was Clinton all pollwatching triangulator? No, he was not. Pre-94 disaster Clinton was packaged as a New Democrat, it is true, but he governed pretty progressively. Dick Morris Clinton was, well, a triangulator - and maybe right to be. But the Clinton that was most interesting to me was the Arkansas Project/VRWC Clinton - the Fighting Clinton. I liked that Clinton the best (well the lying was a problem, but we can have a long discussion about that). And he didn't just fight for his own skin.
This, from his 1999 State of the Union Address, was my favorite Clinton:
Our fiscal discipline gives us an unsurpassed opportunity to address a remarkable new challenge: the aging of America.
With the number of elderly Americans set to double by 2030, the baby boom will become a "senior boom." So first and above all, we must save Social Security for the 21st century. (Applause.)
Early in this century, being old meant being poor. When President Roosevelt created Social Security, thousands wrote to thank him for eliminating what one woman called the "stark terror of penniless, helpless old age." Even today, without Social Security, half our nation's elderly would be forced into poverty.
Today, Social Security is strong. But by 2013, payroll taxes will no longer be sufficient to cover monthly payments. And by 2032, the trust fund will be exhausted, and Social Security will be unable to pay out the full benefits older Americans have been promised.
The best way to keep Social Security a rock-solid guarantee is not to make drastic cuts in benefits; not to raise payroll tax rates; and not to drain resources from Social Security in the name of saving it. Instead, I propose that we make the historic decision to invest the surplus to save Social Security.
Remember what the Republican Congress wanted to do? Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. Clinton needed a populist issue to beat back the Republicans on that issue in the face of the then coming surpluses. He grabbed Social Security and left the Republicans dumbfounded and hogtied:
Specifically, I propose that we commit 60 percent of the budget surplus for the next 15 years to Social Security, investing a small portion in the private sector just as any private or state government pension would do. This will earn a higher return and keep Social Security sound for 55 years.
But we must aim higher. We should put Social Security on a sound footing for the next 75 years. We should reduce poverty among elderly women, who are nearly twice as likely to be poor as our other seniors -- and we should eliminate the limits on what seniors on Social Security can earn.
Now, these changes will require difficult but fully achievable choices over and above the dedication of the surplus. They must be made on a bipartisan basis. They should be made this year. So let me say to you tonight, I reach out my hand to all of you in both houses and both parties and ask that we join together in saying to the American people: We will save Social Security now. . . .
It was Clinton at his best. Framing, populist, and true to his nature and approach, consensus building. So let's consider, is this Clinton approach the right one for Democratic politics now?
I think decidedly not. President Bill Clinton's bully pulpit, political skills and political situation bear little resemblance to our minority status in Congress. We have no bully pulpit, no charismatic attention demanding leader. We must fight differently. And the history of our politics, as documented and explained by Richard Hofstadter, tells us this. We need a populist politics that understands the Republican paranoid style and that understands the Democrats must not only define themselves, but also make clear what the Republicans are.
A final point, one thing Clinton does and always understood is that certain segments of the electorate will never be convinced by the Democratic message. They simply do not share our values. People like Barack Obama and George Lakoff pursue the pipedream of appealing to conservatives. To Bill Clinton's credit, he never did that. Clintonism was basically a politics that pursued moderate voters.
But Clinton's approach was to essentially blur the Dem identity, while allowing the Republican identity unscathed. The fear of the branding imposed on the Democratic Party over the years by Republicans may have made that approach understandable.
Ironically, the policy successes of the Clinton Administration make concerns regarding the Democratic brand on domestic issues unnecessary. These successes, coupled with the utter disaster that is the Bush Administration, permit Democrats to argue the issues on their own terms, advocating core Democratic values and yes, allow the Democrats to brand the Republicans as the extremist incompetent unprincipled party that it is. Now that won't win many conservative votes I grant you, but we ain't getting them anyway. So called moderates? Well I think it will win their votes.
In short, political climate allows the Democrats to define what the middle is.
I wonder what Bill Clinton thinks.
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